What is the Gospel?.

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Well a big thank you to Anna, Jonathan and the choir for the music tonight. I don’t know what kind of music you’re into, but there’s a bewildering variety out there which most of us wouldn’t have a clue about. E.g., if you think ‘garage’ is what they play at petrol stations or that ‘hip hop’ is for dancing to on one leg, you need to think again. And I only have to mention trance, electro house, ska, grunge and dubstep to take most of us way out of our depth. But mention gospel, and most people know you’re talking about music inspired by the Christian message.

And the word ‘gospel’ just means good news – that is, news of what someone has done which is for your good. So if you have a mortgage, and Mervyn King cuts the interest rate, that’s gospel. If you’re a student, and Dad makes you an emergency bank transfer, that’s gospel. And the first Christians called their message ‘the gospel’ because they were convinced that what Jesus did was for the ultimate good of every one of us. They were convinced that he was God’s Son and that God in his love had sent him to die and rise again, so that we could come back into relationship with him. And that’s why Christians sing like we have tonight.

You’ve probably never heard of Gladys Aylward, but she was a missionary to China. And a local doctor agreed to be her guide on a journey where no Christian had ever been. And it got so seemingly uninhabited, that she stopped to pray for guidance after which she just sang some Christian songs in Chinese. And out of nowhere, this lama priest appeared. And he said he’d heard her singing and wanted her to come to his lamasery (i.e., monastery) – which was a totally unheard of invitation to a foreigner. And in her autobiography, Gladys Aylward says:

I hesitated. But he said, ‘We have waited long for you to come and tell us of the God who loves.’So we followed him to the lamasery. We were escorted into a courtyard where five hundred lama priests sat. We were seated in the middle. And I wondered what we were expected to do.‘You sing,’ said the doctor. So I sang a Christian song and then the doctor explained it. He told them about the baby born at Bethlehem and the Saviour who died on Calvary.‘Now sing again,’ he said. So I sang and he talked and I sang and he talked into the night.Later the lamas came in pairs, always asking the same question, ‘Will you explain why he died and how it is he could love me?’(The Little Woman, Gladys Aylward)

Finally, she met the head lama and asked why, against all protocol and tradition, he had let her in. And he showed her a leaflet with a Bible verse in it. It was John 3.16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3v16)

And he said that, on a trip away, one of the lamas had been given it, along with copies of the Gospels, but they hadn’t been able to understand them and had been waiting for someone to explain it all. And he said, ‘We knew you were the one we’d been waiting for, because only people who know the God who loves will sing.’

And that’s right. Christians do sing like no other religion because they’ve got what no other religion gives. So other religions give you rules. They say, ‘Do this and that, and God will accept you (or you’ll achieve Nirvana, or whatever) if you do it enough.’ Whereas the gospel says, ‘Done.’ It says to us, ‘You’ve made yourselves unacceptable to God by ignoring him and living in ways you know are wrong. But God in his love has sent his Son to do what it took to make you acceptable again.’ And the gospel then asks us the question, ‘Will you receive what he’s done for you?’

And in the rest of the time I just want to explain what Jesus has done by his death and resurrection – and what it’s got to do with us today. And I want to do that by looking at the reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 23. Let me read from the start of it again:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with [Jesus] to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. (vv32-33)

Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s worst punishment for the worst crimes – such as terrorism and murder. And these two criminals were getting what they deserved for what they’d done. Whereas Jesus wasn’t there for what he’d done but for what he’d said – which was: that he was God’s Son and the rightful ruler of all our lives. But then, as now, that claim wasn’t welcome. I have an older brother called Niall. He’s pretty senior in Vodafone, so if you’re with them, thanks for subsidising my Christmas and birthday presents. He’s a generous and good guy, but he doesn’t share my faith in Jesus. And I said to him one time, ‘So do you believe there is a God?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I definitely believe he’s there.’ And I said, ‘So if it could be true that he’s made himself knowable through Jesus, wouldn’t that be worth looking into?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, I don’t really want to.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘I guess because I don’t want him interfering in my life.’ And if we’re honest, deep down that’s the natural attitude of every one of us to God. And at one level, that’s the reason Jesus died on the cross. He claimed to be God’s Son and the rightful ruler of us all. And the Jewish rulers didn’t want him to be that in their lives – and got him crucified to get rid of him (or so they thought). So if you look down to v35 it says:

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (vv35-39)

Which is all heavy sarcasm. They’re saying, ‘So you’re the Son of God and our rightful king, are you? So what are you doing strung up there on the cross? Doesn’t that destroy your claims?’

But there’s one person present who does see who Jesus really is. Look on to v40:

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (vv40-42)

So this second criminal is saying, ‘I don’t believe this man has done – or said – anything wrong. I believe he is who he claimed to be.’ And then he says to Jesus, ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ So somehow he has the conviction that Jesus is about to go through death and out the other side into his heavenly kingdom, and he says, ‘When you do that, please remember me with favour, with mercy.’ And here’s where it begins to get offensive – look at v43:

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v43)

I.e., ‘Rest assured, I will bring you through death after me – and far from facing my judgement, you’ll be with me in heaven.’

Now does that offend you? It’s like someone I know who was a chaplain in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. He saw a number of convicted IRA men come to faith in Jesus. And he received regular hate mail and threats from those who couldn’t stomach the claim that men like that could be accepted by God. And if we are offended by Jesus accepting this criminal, it’s because it blows away our favourite religious idea – which is: that God will accept us if we’re good enough. Because it shows God obviously doesn’t accept people on that basis.

And in fact, what Jesus taught, over and over, was that the only way God will accept any of us is on the basis of forgiveness. Because if you compare yourself honestly with his standards of goodness in the Bible, you’ll see that you’re not good enough, and that the basis of God accepting you has to be his forgiveness of all the ways you’re bad. And at the deepest level, that’s the reason Jesus died on the cross. It was to pay for our forgiveness.

You see, the Bible says the reason we’ve all failed to live up to God’s standards is that we’ve all turned away from him in our hearts – we haven’t lived for him because we don’t really want to. So now imagine that, in God’s eyes, above the head of each of us hangs a big, black file. In it is the record of everything we’ve each ever done wrong – everything that God should hold against us if he’s to be just. And the question is; how can God forgive that record? I.e., how can he remove that big, black file, and the judgement we deserve for it, without it looking as if he was saying, ‘Let’s just put it to one side and forget about it; let’s just say right and wrong don’t really matter’? Because that would be impossible for a just God to do.

So how can God forgive and still be just? According to the Bible, this is how. He sent his Son into this world in the person of Jesus, and he lived alongside us the only ever sinless life. And this is where we get to the truth of what that second criminal said in v41. He might have been speaking for us all when he said:

“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong.” (v41)

So what was Jesus doing there on the cross? Well, another verse of the Bible puts it simply like this:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree [ie, the cross]. (1 Peter 2v24)

I.e., he was taking on himself the punishment we deserve – so that we could be forgiven our sin, while justice was still done on it. And that’s why God caused that darkness over the crucifixion – even though it was the middle of the day. And if you were here in Newcastle for the great storm this summer, you won’t doubt that darkness like that is possible in the middle of the day –because you’ve seen it, haven’t you? And God caused darkness to come over the crucifixion as a sign that Jesus was facing not human justice, like those criminals (the human justice was a farce) – but God’s justice, in our place.

So that’s the gospel. It’s that God loved you enough to give his Son to do that, and that his Son loved you enough to be willing to do that, so that you can be forgiven whatever you’ve done and come back into relationship with him. And this criminal in Luke 23 plays us all onside, doesn’t he? Whatever he was – terrorist, murderer – the message is: if Jesus could forgive him, he can forgive anybody – he can forgive you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done. There’s nothing on your conscience that wasn’t paid for on the cross.

But: how do we know that’s what really happened – that it really was the Son of God dying there, and that it really did pay for your and my forgiveness?’ The answer is: because of what happened next. Because what happened next – after Jesus’ death and burial on that first Good Friday – was that three days later, on that first Easter Sunday, his tomb was found empty and he was seen alive by numerous eye-witnesses.

Now I guess plenty of us still need to look at the evidence for that in the Bible, and make up our own minds about it. But that’s the evidence which says that Jesus did rise from the dead – and that he was therefore no ordinary man, but the Son of God. And that then means his death could have been no ordinary death, either. Because if he was the Son of God, with no sins of his own to pay for, the only thing that makes sense is that he was paying for the sins of others – for yours and mine. And his resurrection was the sign that he’d finished doing that in full. So just imagine you’ve taken me out for a meal in a restaurant. And at the end, you suddenly realise you’ve come out without any money. And because I thought you were paying, I don’t have any on me, either. But to spare you embarrassment, I call over the manager and say, ‘My friend has unfortunately forgotten to bring any money; can I wash up to pay for the meal?’ And we agree an hour’s work for each course, so I disappear behind the kitchen swing doors to do my stint. And the question is: how do you know when I’ve finished, when it’s all paid for, and you’re free to walk out? The answer is: when I reappear through the swing doors. Well, on Good Friday, Jesus went behind the swing doors of death, to pay for our sins. And on Easter Sunday, he reappeared, to show us that he’d finished – that he’d paid in full for all the forgiveness you and I will ever need – and to show us that he really is God’s Son and our rightful king.

That’s the gospel of what Jesus has done for you. And like I said near the start, it asks us the question, ‘Will you receive what he’s done for you?’

Just imagine that I could draw a line of where everyone here stands in relation to Jesus. At one end of my line there would be those who can say, ‘I have received what he’s done for me. I know I’m forgiven. And in response to that, I’m trying to live this life for Jesus as King. And I know that beyond this life I’ll be with him in heaven.’ And there’s nothing better in life than to be able to say that. At the other end of my line would be those who couldn’t yet say any of those things. And if you’re at that end you may be saying, ‘I’m really not sure yet that any of this is even true.’ And if that’s you, can I say: do please keep coming, do please keep looking into the gospel and questioning the gospel until you can really make your mind up about the gospel. And our Christianity Explored groups are ideal if you’re at that stage.

But maybe tonight you’re somewhere in the middle on my line. You know it’s true – you’ve crossed that bridge in your mind. But you’ve not yet responded to what Jesus has done for you. You’ve not turned to Jesus, as that second criminal did, and said, ‘I do recognise you as my rightful King; please forgive and accept me so that I can start life over again with you in your rightful place.’ So I want to end with a prayer which you could use if you know you want to do that. Here it is, so that you can decide whether it would be appropriate for you:

Father in heaven,Thank you for your love in sending your Son to die for me.Please forgive me.And please come into my life by your Spirit to help me live for you as my King from now on.Amen

You may be much further back than that, or further on. But if you want to respond to the gospel and start again with God in his rightful place in our life, you could use that prayer.

And to anyone who does pray that prayer and mean it, I’d encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it – and that that will become clear in your experience. And if you’re someone who has just begun this relationship with God through his Son Jesus, can I encourage you to tell another Christian that you’ve taken that step – it’ll help you start being public about it; and they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.

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